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Shock And Awe

You think climbing Rainier is tough? Try it blind. Or with one leg. Then see who you pity.

“Let’s go, Art!” says Ed Salau, feigning irritation. “Standing is the worst thing an amputee can do!” It’s Sunday morning and sunny. Guides Art Rausch, Curtis Fawley (121 summits of Rainier), and Ashley Garman are making last-minute preparations outside the Paradise visitor center. Salau knows he’s in for a long haul, but at least when he’s moving the pressure on his stump shifts. Too much compression in one area, for too long, produces a painful spot that can go raw and become infected. Rausch gives the go-ahead; Salau leads out. He’s still on the paved trail and within earshot of the parking lot when he falls. The plastic boot on his prosthetic foot scuffed the asphalt and over he went. Crutches, backpack, the whole works. A small group of dayhikers rubbernecks as he struggles to stand. “When I was learning to walk again, I wasn’t afraid of falling,” he says. “I was afraid of people seeing me fall. It was a pride factor. Now I tell people there are two kinds of amputees–those who have fallen, and those who will fall again. You know, get over it. It’s going to happen.”

He’s back on his feet now (his foot now, you think), back at the head of the line. Planting those crutches, trying to get the angle on how to best swing that heavy boot. He meets a steady counterflow of pedestrians, and invariably it’s eyes straight ahead until he’s past, then the heads spin and the murmuring begins. It’s natural enough: To see a line of men headed for a mountain and one of them missing a leg and feel the need to comment. Some give him an attaboy. To which Scott Smiley responds, “Who’s that?” and Curtis Fawley explains. Everyone notices the man with one leg, but Smiley is just another guy in sunglasses.
Fawley has three miniature jingle bells attached to his backpack with a plastic zip-tie. The plan was for Smiley to follow the sound, but the bells don’t jingle unless Fawley reaches around and tickles them, so instead he has taken to clicking his climbing poles together behind his legs. Micah Clark is close on Smiley’s heels, watching his boots intently, giving him play-by-play. “Rock to your right…straight ahead now…more to your left…” Smiley hikes impassively for a good long stretch. He keeps his face oriented directly to the fore. If you have time to study him, you’ll see he never looks down, which doesn’t strike you as unusual until you notice it. Each foot hesitates just prior to touchdown, that extra millisecond allowing the nerves to give the brain the lay of the land. Now and then his boot strikes toe-first with a plasticky thump.

“To your left, Scotty,” says Clark.

“Micah, you’re gonna have to stop talking,” says Smiley. “You’ll be worn out before we get up this mountain.” You can hear the grin in his voice, the timbre that’s unexpectedly boyish and light in comparison to his stature and experience.

The peak is far above, and the group is still walking on asphalt. But behind them, Paradise drops away. Off to the left, on the other side of the Wapowety Cleaver, Van Trump Park is a cauldron of rolling mist. Already you can see for miles and miles.

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